The madness of bigotry

 
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By Khaled Diab

Anders Breivik’s “paranoid schizophrenia” may have pulled the trigger but he chose his victims through the crosshairs of far-right politics.

Monday 5 December 2011

A 243-page psychiatric assessment has concluded that Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-right extremist who murdered 77 people this summer, was “psychotic” and suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia” during his politically motivated killing spree.

The diagnosis has not only shocked the families of Breivik’s victims but it has also divided opinion, both on the left and the right. While some have drawn cold comfort from the notion that Breivik was a “madman” and a “lone wolf”, others have questioned how a man supposedly not in possession of his mental faculties could have planned and executed such an atrocity.

“It is completely incomprehensible and surprising that an individual who has planned these acts in such detail and who has proven himself capable of carrying them out should be declared unaccountable,” was the opinion of Per Sandberg, the vice chairman of Norway’s rightwing populist Progress Party, of which Breivik was once a member.

Other psychiatrists, both before and after the official diagnosis, have cast doubt on the idea that Breivik was mad. “The 1,518 pages of Breivik’s manifesto do not appear to be the incoherent output of ‘thought disorder’, but instead read like a rather linear, carefully crafted tome,” writes Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of experimental psychopathology at Cambridge University. “It is the work of a man with a single vision, a single belief that he wishes to prove to the world in exhaustive detail, and in a logical fashion.”

Some have questioned whether the psychiatric assessment is, itself, not politically motivated – psychiatry, after all, is not an exact science. “There is good reason to suspect their assessment may tell us more about the socially embedded nature of psychiatric diagnosis and the prevailing political climate in Norway than any claim it was the result of some kind of cold, hard, value-free science,” opines Tad Tietze, an Australian psychiatrist who co-edited a book on attempts by some on the right to depoliticise the Norway massacre.

And numerous Norwegian observers seem to agree. “What originally seemed to be an obvious case of political terrorism has increasingly been treated as a case of individual madness,” writes the Norwegian author Aslak Sira Myhre. “His political madness, a political paranoia he shares with extremist bloggers, organisations and politicians all over Europe, has been reduced to clinical madness.”

This process of personalising the political is not new in Norway, according to Myhre, pointing to how Norwegian society responded to the Nazi sympathies of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun to avoid trying him for treason after World War II. And, of course, Norway is not alone in its tendency to prefer to label the extremists in its midst as mad rather than bad.

But is Breivik mad or bad? In my view, it is likely that he is both. His “paranoid schizophrenia” – which the court psychologist said he exhibited during the act, but not necessarily before or since – may have been his mind’s way of dealing with the sheer magnitude of the atrocity he was committing.

After all, murdering 77 people in cold blood and by your own hand is something that goes against all the values on which Breivik and the rest of humanity are raised, and the descent into temporary insanity could have been the only coping mechanism his psyche possessed to deal with the political act he contemplated.

Besides, madness and badness are often comfortable bedfellows in the minds of violent extremists. “Hitler’s diatribe against the ‘Jewification’ of Europe parallels Breivik’s diatribe against the ‘Islamification’ of Europe. Both were men convinced by the rightness of their beliefs; both were willing to sacrifice people to achieve their ends,” posits Baron-Cohen. It has been suggested that Hitler had Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but this fails to explain how he constructed a coherent political system which appealed by millions.

Although the mainstream of the far-right, such as the English Defence League, has worked hard to distance itself from Breivik and has embraced the psychiatric assessment with visible relief, the man himself is reportedly “insulted” by the diagnosis. “[Breivik] said he had feared that conclusion, but didn’t think it would come,” the prosecutor on the case has been quoted as saying.

Breivik’s fringe fan club who regard the Norwegian killer as a “hero” and “martyr” reject the psychiatrists’ assessment and see in it the hidden hands of conspiracy. “If anyone is insane it’s the Norwegian people for allowing plague-infested swarms of coloured inferiors to have sex with Norwegian women,” wrote one commenter on a far-right blog.

“Killing a bunch of white kids just because their parents are raving multi-culti nutcases is clearly wrong, but it is time these middle ranking administrators and facilitators who carry out the destructive policies of big Jew start to realise they will be held to account for their actions, in a very personal way,” wrote another.

What these comments and others suggest is that, although Breivik’s insanity may have led him to pull the trigger, he selected his victims using the crosshairs of his far-right political convictions, which he shares with a sizeable minority on the political fringes.

The far right parties and groups which Breivik admits to admiring are correct in their insistence that they are not responsible for his violent actions and, tempting as it may be, it is wrong to blame them for it. In fact, progressives and liberals should resist the lure of demonising the mainstream of the far right further because such vilification is not only counterproductive but also exhibits a similar brand of dehumanisation as that exercised by rightwing bigots towards immigrants and leftists. Far better would be to build a thorough understanding of what socioeconomic factors cause people to hold such extreme views and find effective ways of counteracting and neutralising them.

That said, while the far right and populist rightwing, and those mainstream politicians who pander to their prejudice, cannot be held directly responsible for Breivik’s actions, they are guilty of creating the fertile ideological groundwork for extremism, including increasingly violent extremism, to emerge and take hold. If their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-minority rhetoric is not toned down, today’s “lone wolves” may soon give way to bloodthirsty packs ready to kill and terrorise to recreate the mythical purity, beauty and innocence of yesteryear.

 

This article is part of a special report on far-right politics in Europe.

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